Libya: Dodging Flak on Capitol Hill

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Defense Secretary Robert Gates testifies on Capitol Hill Thursday / DoD photo

You couldn’t blame Defense Secretary Robert Gates for feeling just a little bit like those Libyan rebels retreating under pressure from Muammar Gaddafi’s forces — but those attacking Gates Thursday were members of the U.S. Congress. One thing was clear after Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spent most of the day testifying before a pair of congressional panels: Congress is a no-buy zone when it comes to Operation Odyssey Dawn.

Like vultures picking at carrion, lawmakers largely focused on what they saw as the negative: the lack of White House consultation with them before launching the war (“The Friday before we launched the attack, we did have that consultation,” Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., said. “I think, in the future, in the days and even weeks as we built up to this, it would have been better for the White House to have began discussions with key Republican and Democratic leaders as we built up to this decision”), its cost (“Now NATO is in the lead, does that mean we can reduce our military involvement and reduce the spending of these Tomahawk missiles at a million dollars apiece?” Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., wondered), and — most persistently — the lack of a defined endgame (“I worry that we have a stalemate on our hands and we are already seeing the limits of what can be done from the air,” fretted Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Mass.)

Even as the dirge continued from Capitol Hill, there were glimmers of hope from Libya. Following the defection of Libyan Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa on Wednesday, former foreign minister and U.N. ambassador Ali Abdussalam el-Treki defected Thursday to Egypt. Whether these were merely surface cracks in Gaddafi’s hold on power – or something more profound – remains unknown. “We must not fail in Libya,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who served as a POW in the Vietnam War. “I say this as someone who is familiar with the consequences of a lost conflict.”

But the focus on Capitol Hill Thursday was on the prospect of a stalemate. And if a stalemate persists? “I can speak with some confidence,” Gates said (apparently, a promise has been made), “that the president has no additional military moves in mind beyond what he has already authorized, which is the support of the no-fly zone and the humanitarian mission.”

You could sense congressional ire in some of the questions asked — and Gates’ dodges. Republicans have been upset over the Obama Administration’s refusal to call the Libyan campaign a “war.” One aide went to far last week as to call it a “kinetic military action.” Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., pressed Gates on the point: would it be an act of war if another nation deliberately launched a Tomahawk cruise missile at New York City? “Probably so,” Gates responded, adding that he is no expert in Constitutional law. That made Forbes even more upset: “You’re secretary of defense. You ought to be an expert on what’s an act of law — an act of war — or not.” Would the reverse — the U.S. launching Tomahawks at another state — be an act of war, Forbes demanded to know. “Presumably,” Gates said.

Grey clouds hung over the Capitol Thursday, representing the political weather outside. “There was a poll that just came out today that said that 21 percent of Americans believe that the U.S. has a clearly defined mission in Libya,” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Tex., told Gates and Mullen Thursday afternoon in their appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee. “I bet if you took a poll of Congress, the numbers would be similar.” In his morning appearance before the House Armed Services Committee, Gates declined to hazard a guess which way a vote would go if the President sought support for his Libyan operation.

While they may have acted as vultures Thursday, it’s fair to note that Congress has increasingly acted as a chicken when it comes to matters of war and peace. It doesn’t declare war anymore — it prefers to pass AUMFs — authorizations for the use of military force. “There has not been a formal congressional declaration of war, as far as I can recall, since World War II,” Gates told the House panel (Gates has a good memory: the last time Congress declared war was against Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania in June 1942, 15 months before the defense secretary was born).

That leaves fewer lawmaker-fingerprints on the resulting combat, and doesn’t carry the weight of a declaration of war. Presidents have been happy to occupy the vacuum left by Congress. It’s a lousy way for a democratic nation to wage war. But it’s increasingly likely where there is no draft, and where the professional military caste is increasingly separate and apart from the citizenry it is supposed to be defending.

Gates, praised by lawmakers for his candor, conceded the rebels need help on every front if they are to have any hope of winning. “What the opposition needs as much as anything right now is some training, some command and control, and some organization,” he said. “It’s pretty much a pickup ballgame at this point.”

That reminded some younger observers that Thursday was Major League Baseball’s opening day. Ten blocks south of the Capitol, the Washington Nationals were preparing to lose their first game of the season, 2-0, to the Atlanta Braves. It reminded their elders of the Bay of Pigs.